Dr Brian Bloch explains why, even between members of the European Union, an understanding of German culture, and in particular business culture and practices, is crucial to commercial success
Germany is a major market for many European trading partners and it so it will remain. The current low growth rate and high employment impacts little on the massive business potential, much of which remains untapped.
Although many German companies conduct business in English and business people often have high levels of competence in the language, ensuring optimal success requires a substantial package of cross-cultural skills.
These range from knowing the latest economic, political and trade union developments, to impressing people with your knowledge of German literature, theatre and film.
Getting it right
Everyone knows that Germans are punctual and precise, but what exactly does that imply for a negotiation process and the subsequent deal? If you are a seller, keeping to delivery dates and agreed product specifications is clearly essential. But there is a lot more involved in really getting it right.
To expand on the language issue, although one can frequently "get by" in English, this cannot be taken for granted, so it is important to establish just how well your partners understand you. They may sound more fluent than they really are. Any sales or information brochures should already be translated into German so as to be understood fully and to send the right signals about commitment.
Germans dress carefully and generally quite fashionably too. Turning up in creased trousers and an old-fashioned tie with a suspicious stain on it may convey potential inefficiency and unreliability.
Shaking hands is surprisingly important. Germans go though this ritual meticulously the first time they see each other in the morning - every day. And business meetings are ended with a comprehensive round of handshaking.
There is a whole host of other issues relating to meetings, negotiating, socialising, and even body language, which can ensure that your German business partners are suitably impressed with you and keen to do business.
Moving beyond these fundamental do's and don'ts, as in the case of any international business, it is important not only to impress the Germans with some name and fact dropping, but also to do things right in terms of the German economy and society.
Crucial issues include the structure of industry, location and the vast differences which still prevail between West and East. Productivity, and real - as opposed to perceived - efficiency, are significant dimensions.
Furthermore, the expanding European Union is fundamental to Germany. The pending membership of Poland and Hungary, for instance, indirectly creates much potential for trade, enabling Germany to be used as a "springboard to the East".
Discover the differences
Ownership and organisation are not the same as in the UK and other European countries. Controversial corporate governance issues impact on doing business in Germany or with Germans, and it is important to be aware of the implications for your activities.
Each industry sector has its own peculiarities. Retailing works one way, and the insurance industry quite differently. The machine tool industry is also a distinct and, in many ways, unique sector.
Knowing precisely how each sector is performing at a particular time, and thus its current requirements, is essential to the planning and execution of business activities. Similarly, what kind of mood prevails amongst buyers, consumers and sellers and what opportunities or threats does this create right now?
From politics to pleasure
Networking in Germany is extremely important. Despite the emphasis on quality and the right person for the job, knowing the right people is surprisingly important. For outsiders, this is a challenge, but also a source of competitive advantage.
Sadly, integrity and honesty cannot always be assumed. Although Germany does not figure badly on international corruption indices, the country has been rocked by a number of horrendous scandals.
Politicians such as Helmut Kohl, have seriously tarnished reputations, and bribery and corruption have been exposed in the financial, construction, food and various other industries. This is not without its implications for British business people dealing with Germany. In short, care and open eyes are required.
Having said that, however, most Germans are a pleasure to deal with. They are solid, reliable partners and they get the job done.
Furthermore, the county is extremely wealthy. The prevailing problems do not detract from the massive wealth that has been accumulated during and since the "economic miracle" years of the fifties and sixties.
Germany's massive economy, its established power and increasing interconnections East and elsewhere, offer unlimited potential for trade partners.
Information and knowledge, especially specific to a particular deal or industry, combined with a sound level of cross-cultural expertise, can make all the difference between success and failure.
Dr Brian Bloch is Associate Professor, Department of Marketing, University of Mêenster, Germany. Previously Senior Lecturer in International Business, University of Auckland. Visiting researcher at the University of Linz, Austria. Extensive published articles on International Business and cross-cultural issues. He is a contributor to intercultural programmes at Farnham Castle.